A young makeup artist named Gloria travels down to Mexico to help a friend win a local beauty pageant. After witnessing a shooting at a dance club, Gloria’s friend is kidnapped and she finds herself caught in the crossfire between the corrupt Mexican law enforcement and a local cartel. Gloria is forced to work with the cartel and its dangerous boss if she hopes to survive and locate her missing friend. If that sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because Miss Bala is (very) loosely based on the Spanish-language film of the same name from 2011. Although it reimagines that film’s plot, the new Miss Bala is not a very imaginative take on this particular crime story.
Gina Rodriguez is assured and engaging in the role of Gloria, a Mexican-American woman who spent much of her life north of the border. A trip to Tijuana to lend her makeup skills to childhood friend and pageant hopeful Suzu (Cristina Rodlo) puts Gloria in an exceedingly dangerous position: Suzu is kidnapped during a local cartel’s attempt to assassinate the chief of police at a dance club, and Gloria – having seen the faces of the would-be assassins – becomes a liability. Soon after, cartel boss Lino (Ismael Cruz Cordova) kidnaps Gloria and turns her into his “girlfriend,” forcing her to participate in their illicit and deadly activities. As illustrated by a disturbing run-in with a cartel member’s girlfriend (Aislinn Derbez), Gloria has basically become Lino’s property – and the only way out is death. Unfortunately, her situation is exacerbated by the involvement of the DEA, which forces Gloria to work as a mole – a situation that only further illustrates that Gloria’s life is of no consequence to the people on either side of this war.
Directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen, Twilight), Miss Bala has a solid intersectional perspective with regards to the social politics at play; Gloria’s life is rendered inconsequential and her voice ignored by those in power not only because she is a woman, but because she is a Mexican-American woman – a difficult position later elaborated by fellow Mexican-American Lino, who bemoans that he was not Mexican enough for the Mexicans or American enough for the Americans, so he took a different path. Rodriguez is more than capable as Gloria, empowering her character in fascinating and occasionally subtle ways. In her hands, Gloria becomes far more than a helpless pinball bouncing between two sides with no agency of her own. Unfortunately, the script (written by Gareth Dunnet-Alcocer) does not perceive the other women as having similar complexity. Suzu, for instance, is little more than a wide-eyed victim who trembles her way through limited screen time; though her fate is hardly surprising given the film’s setting, it’s disappointing that it hardly treats her like an actual human being – as if having one fully developed female character is all anyone has time for. Aislinn Derbez’s Isabel fares only slightly better, though her character only exists to show Gloria the horrific consequences should she step out of line. Isabel is essentially a talking punching bag.
Given Hardwicke’s background and well-established talent, Miss Bala feels somewhat disappointing – certainly a few steps above Twilight in terms of its feminist ideas and social consciousness, but rather generic on the whole. Hardwicke’s directorial style – and the film’s overall plot – is clearly inspired by Point Break, Kathryn Bigelow’s great surfer heist flick, which rightfully earned its place among some of the great crime films of the 20th century. Rodriguez is basically playing the Keanu Reeves role, with Cordova as some weird combo of Patrick Swayze and Lori Petty. There’s an uncomfortable romanticism of Lino, despite his overt displays of misogyny and violence, as if the film is encouraging the audience to want Gloria and Lino to end up together. That Point Break influence, however, tells you almost exactly where this movie is heading – along with your general knowledge of crime dramas and thrillers from the past 30 years or so. It’s largely predictable, if serviceable stuff that never aspires to be anything beyond a solid flick with a strong female lead – that it falls into that reductive trap is perhaps more disappointing than anything else.
Aside from a few stylistic choices and an engaging performance from Rodriguez, Miss Bala is a paint-by-numbers crime drama that lacks any real poignancy or cutting commentary. Rodriguez’s girl power alone generates just enough energy to keep the lights on, but it could use a heck of a lot more.